P.J. Fleck's first season at the helm of the Minnesota Golden Gophers probably didn't go as well as he would have liked. Be that as it may, culture changes take time — and Fleck is in the midst of a complete overhaul of the football program.
As the once much-maligned Big Ten West Division continues to improve on the back of some big-time coaching hires, Fleck’s rebuild from a scheme and philosophy standpoint needs to be near completion before fall camp in order to avoid finishing at the bottom of the standings.
That all starts in spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Minnesota's Spring Practice
1. The quarterback situation
It's been a long time since the Gophers have had a playmaker under center. Tanner Morgan and Seth Green are familiar faces on the depth chart, and they know what their head coach expects. They'll compete for the job, but the front-runner looks like former Cal quarterback and top-rated junior college transfer Vic Viramontes. He's a true dual-threat option with a strong arm, deceptive speed and a linebacker's build. From a pure potential standpoint, Viramontes looks like he gives Minnesota the best chance to win. If he can lock up the job in the spring, that will be a huge step in the right direction for the Gophers.
2. Re-shuffled backfield
The Gophers were hoping to feature one of the better running back duos in the Big Ten with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (above, right) expected to return. But on Tuesday, Fleck announced that Brooks, who missed half of last season with different injuries, will be out all of 2018 as well after suffering a non-contract leg injury during winter conditioning. Smith will anchor the running game after nearly gaining 1,000 yards on the ground last season, but the rest of the jobs in the backfield are up for grabs. It would be a great development for a reliable second option to emerge in the spring.
3. Playmakers at wide receiver
Tyler Johnson looks like the best receiver to come through Minnesota since Eric Decker. He'll likely emerge as the favorite target once again, but opponents know he's coming in 2018. That's going to require another receiver or two to step up and demand to be accounted for. Phillip Howard is dependable but not quite as dangerous as Johnson. True-freshman Rashod Bateman could get on the field regularly, but he won't be on campus until the fall. Keep an eye on Demetrius Douglas to make the most of his reps this spring.
4. Who steps up on the defensive line?
The Gophers suffered a mass exodus of talent on the defensive front -- especially on the interior. The defensive tackle competition will be wide open, and you can expect it to be a point of emphasis for Fleck and the coaching staff this spring. Gary Moore, Royal Silver, Nate Umlor and Alabama transfer O.J. Smith will all be in the mix. They have some big shoes to fill, especially in the way of replacing the departed Steven Richardson -- one of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten.
5. The growth of the offensive line
Minnesota can have all of the playmakers in the world on offense, but unless the offensive line makes significant strides during spring practice and fall camp, it won't matter. Injuries ravaged this unit last season. The silver lining was more playing time for some younger guys, and the end result is a healthy, somewhat experienced position group heading into the spring. Keep an eye on a couple of freshmen from IMG Academy in Florida as well. Australia native Daniel Faalele and high school teammate Curtis Dunlap Jr. combine to tip the scales at around 770 pounds. They could be wild cards.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. He has covered the Big Ten Conference extensively throughout his career. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.